Mike Sharman | Innovator 25 EMEA 2022

Mike Sharman

Founder & Chief Creative Officer

South Africa

“No matter how creative your campaign is, if it fails to be formed from a universal premise relevant to your target market, it won’t resonate or emotionally connect with anyone."

Mike Sharman pioneered his holy trinity of marketing concepts, digital, PR and activation, with the launch of Retroviral in 2010. Twelve years later, under his stewardship, the agency has been responsible for more brands – Nando’s, Russell Hobbs and Douwe Egberts to name but a few - going viral in both awareness and sales than any other agency in Africa. And in the last year alone, the agency has netted more awards than in the previous decade combined.

Named one of the Mail & Guardian’s top 200 South Africans under 35 in 2013, Sharman is also co-founder of digital marketing platform Webfluential.com and disruptive sports storytelling agency retroactive.digital. His specialist area is bootstrapping startups, steering them to profitability and unlocking maximum value for shareholders.

Demonstrating true innovation, he once presented to an audience of 300 over Zoom from a toilet when all flights at Johannesburg’s OR Tambo were grounded due to an apocalyptic storm. A regular guest on South Africa’s most influential talk radio stations, in the last year, he authored his second book, Brandalism.  
How do you define innovation?
We exist to create tomorrow what didn't exist today, and to produce truly remarkable work that our client's target market truly fixates over.

What is the most innovative PR or marketing initiative you've seen over the past 12 months?
I loved adidas's swimmable billboard. It was one of those 'wish I did it', integrated campaigns.

In your opinion, which brands and/or agencies are most innovative in their approach to PR and marketing?
As per the above - adidas and Nike continue to set the bar at a global level. I'm a sport fanatic so probably a touch bias ;).

Describe a moment in your career that you would consider to be innovative.
What we achieved with our #MyKreepyTeacher campaign. In the midst of a pandemic, pitched and greenlit via whatsapp, seeded globally. Direct impact on sales - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xClPoBhzQcw - a career defining piece of work and the epitome of how we news hijack.

Who do you admire for his/her approach to innovation?
I'm an art history nerd at heart. Andy Warhol transcends art and advertising and inspires me to create campaigns that force an audience to engage, interact and apply critical thought to what we have engineered.

How do you get out of a creativity rut?
Exercise. Run, cycle, swim, box. The release of endorphins and increased serotonin levels are directly proportional to enhanced creative results. Also, the more I write in my personal capacity, the better my branded content outputs. Once again, as Nike says: 'Just do it!'

What advice would you give to the PR industry around embracing innovation?
Innovation begins with a truth; an insight. No matter how clever or creative your campaign is, if it fails to be formed from a universal premise (relevant to your target market), it won't resonate or emotionally connect with anyone. Emotionally connect, before you rationally drive sales. The sales funnel is human first then science.

What would you be doing if you weren't doing your current job?
I'd be a speaker (favourite part of my job) or a mentor - youth development is a passion point - I want to encourage people to start successful businesses, in order to create an employment domino effect; something that is truly lacking in South Africa. We don't have enough public, outspoken, good-natured leaders or male role models.

Which book/movie/TV show/podcast/playlist/other cultural source has provided inspiration over the past year?
I just finished watching The Offer - highly recommended for all creatives - that details the efforts required in turning The Godfather into a movie, how the 'client' (the studio) was anti Pacino for the role of Michael and all the various other complexities, in order to the get the 'campaign' over the line. I love the fight to bring ideas to life. It's etched in my soul.

How would you like to see work culture, and the role of the office, evolve?
I love the opportunities remote work has given us to pitch anyone, anywhere in the world. With glocal thinking comes hyper local execution - there's nothing I love more than in-person brainstorm, and client problem solve. Also, I'm so damn proud that in 12 years , we have built a truly diverse and integrated agency - every race, background, shape, and identity / orientation has a home at Retroviral. This variety of team member makes us the agency that we are - malleable for any brief for any target market.

How can the PR and communications industry harness innovation to make more progress on diversity, equity and inclusion?
I'd start with honesty. Once your agency has the freedom to ask any question about sex / gender / race / politics and for the discussion to exist in a truly safe space, you will become more innovative. I've seen it first hand. You'll produce generation defining work. We have, IMHO